Sharp new Nissan Sentra has its mojo back
A few years back Nissan’s Sentra lost its way. For years it had been right up there with Toyota’s Corolla and Honda’s Civic as a premier entry level sedan, great for young families.
But then it started to look like a cheap little car, inside and out. Worse yet, it drove like one, maybe a step or two up from a Suzuki. Then Hyundai and Kia came into the market and leapfrogged right over Sentra with their entry-level cars.
Nissan’s restyled 2013 Sentra aims to put a stop to that, and it certainly should make a dent in the segment, likely gaining Nissan a chunk of market share. The reason is way more than skin deep, although the skin looks decidedly more attractive and upscale than its preceding models. There’s chrome around windows and along the sides and on the trunk. The taillights look sporty like other Nissan models.
No, with this one you won’t be singled out in your elementary school kid’s parking lot as the parent who couldn’t afford a nice car. This looks sharp, and its interior is equally impressive.
More importantly, the car feels more solid, much quieter and more refined than previous models. Plus Sentra grows in all its dimensions, so much so that it’s listed as a mid-size car, about the size a Toyota Camry or Mazda6 were just a few years back. It rides on a 106.3-inch wheelbase and is 182 inches long. The trunk is a full 15 cubic feet, what you used to expect in such cars at Ford’s Taurus.
Yet Sentra still feels light (weighing 2,851 lbs.) and easy to control. Steering is moderately quick, although there is still a bit of play in the wheel. Steering effort also is moderate and handling is fine, with just slight lean in turns.
The 1.8-liter I4 under the hood generates 130 horses, enough for most occasions, but it could use a few more ponies. Nissan links that with its Xtronic CVT to generate better gas mileage. On that score Sentra is a winner, garnering an EPA rating of 30 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. I got 34.5 mpg in about a 50/50 mix of city and highway.
But there’s not much low-end power due to that CVT. Yet Nissan gives you choices, if you want more oomph. There are Sport and Eco buttons on the dash’s lower left side. Sport gives you more power from a start, but you pay for that with a moaning engine. I only used Eco for short periods and it cuts acceleration, not something that you really want too often.
Ride is fine too, the longer wheelbase helping smooth this out compared to earlier Sentras. This new model also rides on 17-inch tires.
Brakes are a bit of a surprise. There are discs up front, but just drums in back. That’s not common anymore, but this is a lower priced car at its entry-level S trim level. Still, I was surprised the tested top-level SL had drums. ABS and stability control are standard.
That S model with a 6-speed manual transmission starts at just $15,990, but only gets 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. Us Boomers remember when manual trannies were the way to go if you wanted both low-end power, and better gas mileage. Now CVTs have the gas mileage advantage, without the low-end power.
I can’t deny I liked the more upscale interior, 2-tone gray dash with matte silver trim and fake wood on the doors, console and center stack. Yet there were still cloth seats. This looked like a premium sedan’s interior and was nearly as quiet as one. The only real noise of any consequence was the engine under heavy acceleration, especially in Sport mode.
There were the usual niceties, power windows and mirrors and locks, plus an inside trunk release and tilt/telescope steering wheel. The dash is simple and clean with two main gauges and a digital trip computer between them. That’s controlled by a button on the steering wheel’s hub, which also has radio and cruise controls.
Sentra’s radio sounds fine, but is controlled via a touch-screen. It and the navigation system, which is part of a $650 upgrade, are easy to see and figure out, but the on-screen buttons are mighty small to press while driving. The best part of the screen and option package is the addition of a rearview camera, a welcome addition in parking lots and any time you back up.
Seats are moderately contoured and easy to slide in and out of when entering or exiting the car because the bottom cushion is fairly flat. Being a car, the step-in height is good for nearly anyone and the headroom is great front and back as the roofline is rounded. Legroom is good too for four adults, a fifth being possible. The seats are manually adjusted, with a pump handle for the driver to adjust seat height.
My only interior complaint is the heat system, which is quite slow to warm and give you warm air. I had the car when we had some nights in the upper 30s so could test the heat and it was slower than in most vehicles I’ve tested. On the plus side, the climate control system has large buttons and overhead the sun visors have extenders.
Overall the Sentra is a much more enjoyable drive than its predecessors and is back in step with the Hyundai Elantra, Corolla and Civic as a good choice for young families and folks looking for solid low-cost transportation.
FAST Stats: 2013 Nissan Sentra SL
Hits: More attractive and upscale exterior and interior than predecessor, exceptional gas mileage, quiet and comfy interior. A good handling car with both Sport and Eco modes, if you need power, or prefer gas savings. Large trunk.
Misses: CVT delivers weak acceleration with poor low-end power. Engine moans under heavy acceleration. Heater is slow to deliver warm air.
Made in: Mexico
Engine: 1.8-liter I4, 130 hp
Transmission: Xtronic CVT
Weight: 2,851 lbs.
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Cargo: 15.0 cu.ft.
Base Price: $19,760
Dealer’s Price: $18,487
Carpeted floor/trunk mats, $170
Navigation package (Nav system w/5.8-in. color touch-screen, voice recognition, NavTraffic, NavWeather, hands-free text messaging, rearview monitor, streaming audio), $650
Test vehicle: $21,370
Sources: Nissan, www.autos.yahoo.com
Photos: Courtesy of Nissan